Allen Stone aims for soul revival with substance
By Naila Francis
When Allen Stone sold out back-to-back shows at Seattle’s Neptune Theatre last month, the occasion was understandably momentous.
But it wasn’t just because the venue seats a thousand or because he was backed by the Seattle Rock Orchestra.
His parents were in the audience. And as the rising soul singer tells it, that in itself was a major accomplishment.
The 24-year-old Stone has received plenty of buzz since the independent release of his self-titled sophomore album in October. His contemplative, socially conscious R&B has called to mind artists such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, his own personal icons, while his sinuous vocals and vintage sound have placed him in the revivalist ranks of contemporary musicians like Mayer Hawthorne and Raphael Saadiq — though much has been made about how his huge glasses, hippie threads and blond curly mop have broken the dapper retro-soul mold.
But long before he was stunning audiences with his soaring falsetto, lush ballads and thick, churning grooves, Stone, the son of a preacher who was raised in a conservative Christian family, was eyeing a career in Christian music.
He abandoned that plan around age 19, deciding, too, that he would forgo college in favor of chasing his dreams. That they entailed finding success as a soul singer was disconcerting to his parents, which is why their attendance at his sold-out show was such a boon.
“This was never so much about me trying to rebel. It was just that I loved music so much,” says Stone, who performs Saturday and Monday at the Theatre of the Living Arts in Philadelphia. “Obviously, my parents still to this day would prefer me to be a church singer and a Christian songwriter, but they still support me and love me to death.”
That he’s generated as much attention as he has in the last year still surprises him. He recorded “Allen Stone,” his follow-up to 2009’s “Last to Speak,” with producer Lior Goldenberg (Ziggy Marley, Macy Gray) in Los Angeles, playing with a lineup that included members of Saadiq’s band, as well as Darren Johnson, once the keyboardist for Miles Davis. The album debuted at No. 2 on iTunes’ R&B chart and has earned plaudits from the likes of Billboard, NPR and USA Today . Stone also performed “Unaware,” a surprisingly sexy slow jam of a political diatribe, on “Conan” in October, after a YouTube video of him playing the song in his mother’s living room went viral.
If his looks have made him an anomaly — “I like bright colors and I like flair, but most importantly I just love individuality, and I think everybody looks the same and it pisses me off,” he says — so, too, does the city from which he hails. Stone was raised in rural Chewelah, Wash., but moved to Seattle to launch his career.
“Seattle has always traditionally been very gloomy in its tastes in music. It’s so easy to be pissed off and sad in Seattle because of the weather,” he says, despite acknowledging a briefly flourishing soul and funk scene in the late-1960s and early-’70s (recently chronicled in the “Wheedle’s Groove” CD compilation and documentary). “That really got overshadowed by the Nirvanas and the Soundgardens. … Don’t get me wrong. There have been some incredible writers and singers and musicians and I love what they did for our city … but Seattle has never been known as a dance place. Now there’s seemingly a lot of people who are excited to come out to shows in Seattle and party and have a good time and feel like they can be happy at something.”
Though he grew up in a home where secular music wasn’t allowed, he found access to it, through the records his older brother would sneak in and via an alternative radio station from Spokane that he furtively listened to at night, with his bedroom door closed. Initially gravitating to bands like Cake, The Presidents of the United States of America and The Verve Pipe, he says he knew he wanted to sing soul music when he was 15 and a friend gave him some Stevie Wonder records.
Although he’d been singing in church for years, even writing some of his own worship songs, he adapted his tenor to a more soulful style by mimicking Wonder, as well as artists like Gaye and Al Green. But he was drawn to more than just their sound, which is why Stone, in his lyrics, has taken on everything from corporate greed and religious hypocrisy to the emptiness of our proliferating digital connections.
“I’m a total hopeless romantic lover, but I’m so sick and tired of that being the majority of what people write about,” he says. “I really feel like there’s a lack of consciousness, especially in soul music, with what people are writing about. … I want to hear music that stirs up some positive movement, that stirs up some emotion.
“If anyone remembers me in a year, and I doubt they will with how many sources of entertainment people have in front of them, I at least want them to remember that I was somebody who said something.”
Despite his doubts, some form of longevity seems likely. Record labels have been in hot pursuit, but Stone is cautiously weighing his options, preferring to build a grassroots following that would allow him some leverage should he ultimately sign a deal.
“As far as success goes, I have success,” he says. “I came from a tiny town of a thousand people. I turned my cheek when everybody said I couldn’t do it, and I’m doing it. I’m a full-time musician who gets to play music every night and playing live is my dream.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer